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Warmington triggers the argument for compulsory voting

RONNIE SUTHERLAND

Sunday, January 19, 2014    

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MEMBER of parliament Everald Warmington seems not to miss an opportunity to attract hostile attention. His propensity to go out on a limb on highly contentious issues marks him for ridicule and frequent condemnation. By all accounts, he is undaunted and quite often exhibits the boldness that incidentally was the theme for this year's prayer breakfast messages.

It is therefore easy for individuals to yield to the temptation of just dismissing him summarily without giving due consideration to what he is saying.

His most recent transgression had him in typical Warmington style sounding quite contemptuous of citizens who do not vote and even indicating that he would withhold state benefits from these individuals. I am definitely not in support of his position on this matter, since any such move would be illegal, considering the constitutional rights of our citizens regarding their freedom to vote or not.

I am even more uncomfortable knowing that a lawmaker could hold such a position. Unlike others, however, I will not move too fast to condemn him, but rather to try to understand why such an obviously intelligent man would come to such a position.

Most of the objections to Mr Warmington's view are based on citizens' right to exercise their franchise. Reading between the lines while listening to Mr Warmington, I conclude that that is his frustration. I get the impression that he would rather it not being a right to vote but a duty on the part of the citizens.

This introduces the concept of compulsory voting where all citizens would be compelled to vote at election time. Only those citizens, therefore, whose religious rights would be violated by such a compulsion, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, would be exempted.

As outlandish as compulsory voting might sound, it might be of some comfort to know that it is the law in as many as 22 countries worldwide. They include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, and Singapore. These are among countries that we currently admire for their social and economic performance.

Citizens in these countries who fail to vote are subject to fines and/or community service as penalty for the violation. Mr Warmington, therefore, is proposing that the penalty for not voting here be the denial of state benefits. His only problem is that to refrain from voting is not a crime in Jamaica.

Because I accept that Mr Warmington is a hard-working and intelligent man, I am inclined to further examine the source of his frustration. What would lead him to what appears to many to be such a ridiculous position? I come away feeling some sympathy for him when I consider the implications of an increasing number Jamaicans selecting not to participate in our electoral process. If the trend continues, soon minority interest groups could hijack and run the country.

I must therefore confess that I am in support of any legal move that will increase citizen participation at the polls and, by extension, increased participation in governance.

There are several reasons why citizens select not to vote. Among them are: lack of understanding of politics, people being busier now, lack of trust in government, laziness, or simply not caring enough to go out and vote. Whatever our reason, we ought to remember that the right we now have to vote was not always ours to enjoy.

Many before us fought long and hard to secure that right. The least we can do is show some respect and gratitude for their hard work and sacrifice by exercising the right enthusiastically. There is no better way to honour those who have toiled so hard in their fight against discrimination to vote, but to exercise the right and vote.

Where people are compelled to vote, the results are more likely to reflect the will of the people rather than being the consequence of those who are most organised and better able to get out a few more voters on the day of the election. Compulsory voting also gives greater legitimacy to the outcome of the election, as the victorious candidates would represent the majority of the population and not just the few highly motivated individuals who would have voted without compulsion.

For example, in the last general elections in Jamaica, a mere 53 per cent of registered voters turned out to vote. This resulted in the victorious party forming the government with less than 30 per cent of the eligible electorate voting for it.

Compulsory voting should yield other advantages as well. It is expected that with more individuals participating in the voting process, it ought to stimulate more interest and participation in other political and governance-related activities. Additionally, because individuals are obliged to attend and vote, the role that money plays to get out voters would be decreased.

It is also expected that the current high degree of apathy and disengagement from the political process would be corrected with compulsory voting. This would come about as the increased act of voting would serve as a sort of civil education that would ultimately contribute to a better informed population.

The main argument against not making voting compulsory is that the people who are now not voting just don't care and would just pick randomly and make bad choices and undermine the votes of those who put deep thought into the decision.

The counter, however, is that while people might not vote to improve their country, they are not expected to vote to make it worse. They would therefore be expected to put some effort into the process through informing themselves more, which ought to make for a better country.

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